Will Italy’s Museums Survive the Country’s Clash of Insurgent Populisms?

Despite the departure of culture minister Dario Franceschini, who championed foreign talent, hope remains for the country’s famed art institutions

Nearly two months have passed since the Italian elections but the prospect of a functioning government seems further away than ever. Caught between two insurgent forces, the far-right Lega party, and the nebulous, Trumpian Five Star Movement, the Italian political system has once again returned to its default state of deadlock, accompanied this time by a new and particularly aggressive wave of nationalist posturing. Despite increasingly bold agitation on the part of far-right street groups, one of the most recent examples being the vandalism of Milan’s commemorative anti-fascist archive The Pedagogical Institute of the Resistance earlier this month, there is tentative cause for optimism as far as the art world goes. In fact, somewhat remarkably, there is good reason to believe that the country’s cultural sector will be able to operate relatively uninhibited whatever brand of populism emerges victorious from the ongoing battle of egos.  

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Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, installation view. Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; photograph: James O’Mara

If such a statement is possible today it is largely thanks to the work of the Democratic Party’s departing culture minister Dario Franceschini (who lost his seat in last month’s elections), one of the few members of the previous government who was courageous enough to challenge the status quo head on and deliver tangible change. His campaign against the country’s corrupt cultural gatekeepers has done more than any Trumpian imitators could dream of to drain one of the boggiest of Italy’s swamps. One of the most significant developments has been the establishment of a network of semi-autonomous museums and galleries, including the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Uffizi Gallery in Florence and Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, which, thanks to Franceschini, now have independent control over much of their budgets and are relatively protected from the various whims of the ministry itself. In order to liberate these essentially ‘new’ institutions from an ‘old’ and notoriously complex clientalist system, however, Franceschini also opened up museum directorships to foreign nationals for the first time in the history of the republic. As a result, heavily vetted experts from Britain, France and Germany were appointed to top positions, where they have since made considerable progress, particularly in bringing the country’s infamously archaic digital and ticketing services up to global standards.  

Eike Schmidt. Courtesy: Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Eike Schmidt. Courtesy: Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Eike Schmidt. Courtesy: Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Despite the numerical success of this initiative – museum visitors have increased by 31% and revenue by 53% in just four years – Franceschini has been criticized by figures across the political spectrum for taking much needed jobs away from Italian citizens and, for more sentimental spirits, betraying the nation’s unique artistic genius. Given the minister’s premature departure, and the rise of nationalism in the country more generally, it might seem reasonable to worry that the changes could soon be rolled back. According to the German Eike Schmidt, however, currently Director of the Uffizi Gallery and one of Franceschini’s most high profile international appointees (though controversially, leaving to lead Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum next year), such fears are largely superficial. ‘Some reforms have had such a clear and incontestable positive impact that it is highly unlikely any new government will come and change them,’ he told me. Emphasizing the need for the populist parties to demonstrate precisely the kind of results Franceschini has already achieved, Schmidt said: ‘the Five Star Movement and Lega mainly gained protest votes, and with so many angry people a return to the previous system which was more expensive and less efficient would make little sense.’  

Camillo Boccaccino, Madonna col bambino in gloriatra i santi Bartolomeo, Giovanni Battista, Alberto da Trapani e Girolamo, Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Camillo Boccaccino, Madonna col bambino in gloriatra i santi Bartolomeo, Giovanni Battista, Alberto da Trapani e Girolamo, 1532. Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Camillo Boccaccino, Madonna col bambino in gloriatra i santi Bartolomeo, Giovanni Battista, Alberto da Trapani e Girolamo, 1532. Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

When I asked him about the possibility of a more explicitly ideological assault – visible for example in the Lega’s plans to convert an old fascist party headquarters near Lake Como into a new centre for modern art – Schmidt was more cryptic but keen to emphasize the protections that are now in place: ‘this was one of the main impacts of the recent reforms, to make the management of the museum sector and art more independent from politics as a whole.’ British-Canadian James Bradburne, Director of Pinacoteca di Brera, in the heart of Lega territory, seemed to confirm this sense of defiance among Franceschini’s appointees. ‘In all countries around the world I see rising nationalism as a threat to all sectors’ he told me, ‘but while things may change, it will not necessarily be according to what is said in manifestos. Here, as in many countries, what politicians do once they confront the real issues at hand, can vary substantially.’

On this point the Italian populists have proved themselves even more slippery than most. A case in point is the Five Star Movement’s sudden decision to abandon their proposed referendum on the Euro, stating that it was ‘the wrong time’ for such a move. Even the Lega have toned down their warlike rhetoric against Brussels in recent months. The party, which at one time mooted Ital-exit, now refers, rather flatly, to the need for a ‘radical reform of treaties.’ Given that a significant chunk of Italy’s arts funding is the indirect result of EUR€11bn of EU funds this is more good, if bittersweet news for the cultural sector.

James Bradburne. Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

James Bradburne. Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

A more realistic danger at least in the medium term, is that Franceschini’s reforms are not extended in a coordinated and committed manner. ‘There is still a lot to do’ Schmidt told me, ‘museums still can’t allocate jobs properly, or make decisions about staff, like promotions or firing bad collaborators.’ The situation is bad enough at the Uffizi, but nowhere are these problems more urgent than in the southern regions, which also happen to be the new electoral heartland of the Five Star Movement. While voters overwhelmingly turned their backs on the Democratic Party for its failure to tackle poverty, crime and corruption, the Five Star Movement will also have to face up to the fact that it was here that Franceschini’s reforms saw their most profound impact. In fact the last government allocated EUR€360m to help restore sites in the south that had been shamefully neglected during the Berlusconi years, including the colossal Reggia di Caserta and the ancient ruins of Pompeii. These measures, if nothing else, were strongly welcomed by citizens.  

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

One of the quieter but most significant southern success stories is that of the Capodimonte museum in Naples, which, under the direction of the French art historian Sylvain Bellenger, has begun to shrug off its reputation as a dusty and slightly forlorn relic and is now arguably one of the country’s most exciting art venues. It’s a challenge he seems to be relishing. As he told me, ‘Italian governments have so many problems that for all the limited good and limited bad they can achieve this is a country where you can do many things. Disorganization gives a freedom sometimes.’ Thanks to the autonomy afforded by Franceschini, Bellenger has been able to oversee a number of innovative multimedia shows, most notably last year’s much-acclaimed ‘Picasso and Naples’. The exhibition featured Parade (1917), a curtain the Spanish painter produced for the eponymous Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau ballet, brought over from the Pompidou centre in Paris, where it served as the backdrop for other video, photo, dance and music events, many produced by local artists. It even had its own iOS and Android app. Bellenger has also been free to coordinate a crowdfunding campaign which helped enable his team to renovate the museum’s surrounding park, one of the largest urban green spaces in Italy, which had been previously been abandoned to degradation. 

Sylvain Bellenger. Courtesy: Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Sylvain Bellenger. Courtesy: Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Sylvain Bellenger. Courtesy: Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Initiatives like these represent genuine hope for Italy’s cultural sector, but the southern experience is also important as a reminder of the obstacles that would face the nightmare situation of a coalition between the populists. ‘If the Five Star were to make a government with Lega it would be over in weeks’ insists Bellenger, ‘it might be different in Turin or Milan but here in Naples foreigners are always neighbours and always have been. There is no racism or xenophobia here. As a Frenchman I probably have an easier job here than someone from Northern Italy.’ This was a joke of course, but there is a serious side to it too. Despite the realities of corruption and mafia violence, from the hills around Vesuvius, art seems more than just a tourist cash cow but a space for genuine civic reflection and participation. The result is an uncomfortable paradox. While the north continues to dominate jobs and services, it is increasingly hard to ignore the sense that it is here, amidst the untamable cosmopolitanism of the Mezzogiorno, that Italian culture, and perhaps even politics, stands its best hope of reinvention.

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, installation view. Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; photograph: James O’Mara

Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to VICEInternazionale, and Il Manifesto among others, and author of The Invention of Sicily, which is forthcoming from Verso.

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